New York Times  Bestselling Author

Killing Your Babies

kill babies.jpg

Oh, it hurts.

I believe it was Ernest Hemingway who coined the title to this post. He was referring to those wonderful turns of phrase a writer comes up with that, in the final analysis, simply don’t belong in the story and must go. It’s painful to chop a few beautiful lines from what you’ve written, but it’s sheer agony when it’s an entire scene–an entire, absolutely perfect, ingenious, stunning scene–that you ultimately realize  doesn’t belong in the book. 

This has happened to me more times than I care to admit. When I start working on a story, I often have a  dramatic scene pop into my mind. It’s usually an opening scene or even a prologue, and it’s crisp and provocative and often provides the spark I need to create the rest of the story. The problem is, as I do create the rest of the story, I often realize that that initial scene doesn’t belong. Sometimes I can see that for myself. Other times it takes a friend or editor to break the news to me.

Sometimes, though, it works. The very first images I had of Before the Storm were these two: a fire narrated by a special needs teenaged boy, and a teenaged girl sitting on the deck of a round beach cottage, trying to connect to the spirit of her dead father. I loved both these scenes, and they both made it into the final cut.   

Similarly, one of my early mental images as I wrote The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes was of a small, delicate and anxious woman coming onto the porch of her house to face a sea of TV cameras and microphones. That scene was cryptic, leading the reader to wonder “what is going on?” and it made it into chapter one. I find scenes like that incredibly yummy.                                       

However, I still remember the prologue I wrote in the first draft of my third novel, Secret Lives. The character Kyle was on a train and the reader is in his head as he dreads what will happen when he arrives at his destination. I loved that scene! I am happiest when I’m writing in a slightly gothic style–dark and mysterious and provocative–and that scene really fit the bill and helped me see all the scenes that were to follow. When I’d finished the draft though, my writing group told me it didn’t belong. I argued, pleading for its life, but to no avail. My group was right. The scene had given me the gift of the rest of the novel, but beautifully written or not, it served no other purpose. I killed it. Ouch.

So I am now writing the proposal for my new Work-in-Progress. A proposal generally consists of an outline and a few chapters. I wrote a page and a half prologue that is, in my humble opinion, a real winner. Gothic as all get out. Sure to make the reader wonder what the heck is going on. And a concise and pithy introduction to the main character. The only problem is, as I worked on the outline and the characters started doing their usual thing, shoving me around and telling me how I have it all wrong, the prologue was no longer fitting the story. I’m not yet to the point where I can plunge a knife in its heart. I’m going to see if I can rework it to fit. (There’s a chance I may rework the story to fit it. . . sometimes those babies are too stubborn to die). 

This will be my nineteenth book, and it still hurts to kill my babies. If you’re a writer, how do you pull the plug? 

14 Comments

  1. Julie on September 16, 2008 at 1:06 am

    You know, the regular grieving process. Elizabeth Kubler Ross. Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. LOL
    I cut a whole POV out of my story. It was really hard, but I realized the guy was hijacking the story, and I put the kibosh on him. Well, he’s still in the story, but he has no voice. In the process, I realized he had a story that might be worth telling in another book, though. I filed him away for future use.
    Right now I’m squinting sideways, trying to ignore the fact that I need to do scene-by-scene deadheading. I’m weary.

  2. Margo on September 16, 2008 at 8:12 am

    lol Diane!…seriously tho, it must be devastating to have to delete THE major start of a novel after it came to you so magically and you wrapped an entire story around it. Those beautiful, poetic words would mean so much to you and it would be heartbreaking to have your editor tell you it had to go. Just like your beautiful and original title THE SEA TENDER which we all LOVED…it not only hurt you to have to say goodbye to it but this reader in particular couldn’t imagine not seeing it on the cover of your book. All your books have prologues that have me anxiously turning the pages for chapter 1 so whether you’ve kept the original scene or been forced to alter the beginning, it always works…but I’m sure that you are the happiest when it’s your original thoughts that are on those first pages and you know, and we know too that it’s pure genius when it comes from your heart.

  3. Diane Chamberlain on September 16, 2008 at 9:38 am

    Julie, I had to laugh reading your comment. I picture this guy running around in your story with tape over his mouth, flapping his arms in frustration.
    margo, thanks for those kinds words. You know, I think The Sea Tender should have been the title for Before the Storm. I lost that fight, and perhaps will fight harder in the future.
    I’m working on a second version of the new story, one that will make good use of that first scene. Can’t hurt to have two versions to choose from!

  4. Margo on September 16, 2008 at 3:25 pm

    Diane, as a non-writer I have to ask, ‘how do you know what scene to cut?’…if you have this beautiful vision in your head and have communicated it with your words and it’s absolutely ‘stunning’, what convinces you that it needs to change (besides a friend or editor telling you so)…not being a writer I find it fascinating how you are able to convey a story so vividly; but are certain chapters or sentences cut because they serve no real purpose?…I would think something that you wrote which is so exciting would lead to the rest of the book. Another question, when you wrote that Olivia literally held Annie’s heart in her hand, did that scene and prologue come to you right away and lead to the entire rest of the story?…I remember those early scenes captivating me right from the beginning in KEEPER OF THE LIGHT and I always wondered how you came up with that!

  5. Margo on September 16, 2008 at 3:47 pm

    I’m probably asking way too many questions Diane but reading your blog this a.m. made me think of all the wonderful books you’ve written and how each one is so entirely different than the next…and each one has a very unique beginning that grabs right from the start. Is the prologue usually how you come up with your ideas for a novel?…CYPRESS POINT was another ‘grabber’ and I wonder if the very beginning led you to the rest of the events leading up to the ‘healer’ in the story, the twins Carlynn & Lisbeth and if Big Sur was always the premice for location…the sense of place was outstanding!

  6. Diane Chamberlain on September 16, 2008 at 4:07 pm

    Margo, people are going to think you’re a “plant,” mentioning names of my books in a post to get readers interested!
    To answer your first question–why a scene needs to be cut–sometimes I get sucked in by the drama of a situation, but as the rest of the story unfolds the situation no longer fits. We’ve talked here before about how characters can take a story over and alter it. That’s often the reason that a scene that stands alone perfectly no longer works in the context of the larger story.
    As for Olivia holding Annie’s heart in her hand in KEEPER OF THE LIGHT: I knew I wanted Olivia to try to save Annie’s life in chapter one and to fail. (By the way, when I conjured up that scene, I myself did NOT know all Annie’s secrets, which were revealed to me as I worked on the story, just as they were revealed later to the reader). As I was pondering what Annie’s life-threatening injury should be, I happened to read a Readers Digest article about a girl who was shot through the heart, and how the ER doc held her heart in his hand as he stitched the wound closed. That was how I came up with the idea of the gunshot…which of course led to the battered women’s shelter and everything else.
    In CYPRESS POINT: my initial image for the story is another example of something I had to give up. I was traveling in Monterey along the gorgeous seventeen-mile-drive, when I imagined yellow police tape stretched across the driveway of a mansion. I knew something terrible had happened there and began playing with what that might have been. As you know, there never is a scene in the book with yellow police tape, but the mansion and setting ultimately led me to the twins who lived there and their story. I had to go check out the first scene to remind myself what it was(!). Wow, that’s a good scene if I do say so myself. One of my favorites, and yes, very evocative and gripping. It’s a good example of the kind of scene I’m talking about that sometimes has to be killed. I’m glad that one was spared.

  7. brenda on September 16, 2008 at 8:36 pm

    Diane-I agree with you on the title THE SEA TENDER…I really do…As to cutting the scenes in writing we call it CUTTING THE FAT…it is so difficult to get students to do that. When I was in grad school, I had to cut a 20 page paper to 5 (about my mother’s dying…) tore me to shreds…not easy-but necessary.
    As to your WIP–please fight to keep the title you want…if you can…l9 books…wow…You absolutely amaze me…

  8. Margo on September 17, 2008 at 8:41 am

    Diane, let me say to everyone ‘I AM DEFINITELY NOT A PLANT’!…I have been a fan of Diane’s for the past 14 years but have never met her or been to a book signing. I adore all of her books and have always wondered how she came up with some of her gripping prologues…especially KEEPER OF THE LIGHT and CYPRESS POINT which are earlier novels. Being an avid reader but not a writer myself I find Diane’s writing process absolutely fascinating and I particularly enjoyed this blog post where she discusses writing those initial scenes and where they come from.

  9. Denise on September 17, 2008 at 12:46 pm

    Margo, I think I owe you for recommending KEEPER OF THE LIGHT!

  10. Margo on September 17, 2008 at 2:57 pm

    Oh, that’s great Denise! Wasn’t it fantastic?…I’m sure you already know that KISS RIVER is the 2nd in the trilogy and the 3rd is HER MOTHER’S SHADOW. (-:

  11. Denise on September 17, 2008 at 4:43 pm

    I loved it, Margo! And, of course, I read the other two soon thereafter, as well as some others… I finished SECRET LIVES a week or two ago. I liked that one!

  12. Diane Chamberlain on September 17, 2008 at 4:57 pm

    I stand corrected!
    My blog also appears on my profile page at RedRoom.com ( http://www.redroom.com/author/diane-chamberlain ), and a sharp-eyed commenter over there found the actual quotation, which is not something Hemingway said after all. English author Sir Arthur Quiller Couch said:‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it–whole-heartedly–and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’
    With disbelief, I Googled “killing your babies” and although I found other people making the same misinformed attribution to Hemingway, I couldn’t find any legitimate source linking him to the quote. I did, however, find many sites I would just as soon never see again. =:-0

  13. Julie on September 18, 2008 at 6:57 pm

    I have usually heard “Kill your darlings,” but figured it was a pretty close variation! Guess it’s been “hacked up” over time. (Hahaha)
    Ok, speaking of, there’s this site where they show professional cake decorating gone wrong, and they have a bunch of pictures of cakes decorated like babies’ bottoms, and in on case, a whole baby. Yeah, that’s just wrong. LOL Wish I could remember the link.

  14. Diane Chamberlain on September 18, 2008 at 10:58 pm

    I wish you could remember it too, Julie. Are you sure you didn’t dream it?

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